To say that in 2015 the American political landscape is a tangled marsh of philosophical contradictions, inconsistent ideals, and mixed premises should be, to any regular reader of this publication, stating the obvious. Marking ostensibly opposite poles of the spectrum are conservatives who harp about the excesses of government without ever fundamentally challenging the moral premises that underlie them and leftists who still pay mild lip-service to capitalism but who, in fact, are merely waiting for a strong and ideologically consistent enough leader to come along and champion its abolition in the name of egalitarianism (President Obama, despite his aspirations, has been neither strong or ideological enough to fit the bill). Lastly, there are libertarians who, despite their valid precepts on many policy issues, too often reject philosophy and believe that society’s problems can be solved through exclusively (or almost exclusively) political solutions. They therefore often lack the moral grounding to substantiate their political views and frequently fail to motivate the general public in a way that effects significant change.
These contradictions thus lead the proclaimed free market champions, heroes of the everyman, and defenders of individual rights to come off more like middling apologists, strong-arming union thugs, and eclectic pacifists, respectively. From this ideological fog, it should come as no surprise to Republicans, especially, that in perhaps the greatest piece of political irony in decades the candidate they nominated in 2012 was the only Republican in the United States who had actually beaten President Obama to enacting an ObamaCare-style government healthcare plan.
In the midst of these warring contradictions and the parties built around them, it is natural that Americans should consistently be struck by a pervading sense of hypocrisy, both at the individual and collective levels. Conservative candidates, parties, and officeholders who pay lip service to free markets continue to support corporate welfare, tariffs, protectionism, regulations, distortive tax policies, massive entitlement programs, and even, in some cases, government healthcare—as long as, they remind us, it is done at the state level and not by the federal government. Leftists who claim to care about the poor turn a blind eye when the statist policies enacted to help them only plant them ever deeper in poverty. Libertarians castigate the political mainstream for dismissing their cries for limited government and individual rights. Meanwhile, the intellectual eclecticism of those who wear the ‘libertarian’ brand and the big-tent approach to that label lump together fundamentally different beliefs on everything from monetary policy to prostitution . As they bemoan the general public’s failure to embrace their ideas, they lack even the appearance of consistency among themselves.
That there is hypocrisy afoot in US politics is one of the few tenets perhaps universally agreed upon by Americans of all political stripes. What are not so widely understood are the limits of the hypocrisy charge and its significance in the greater scheme of history. As articles and memes forever circulate on the internet and social media with this or that charge of moral inconsistency, it is important to understand the self-limiting nature of hypocrisy, what moral faults are of far greater danger than it, and why so many people fall into the trap of seeing hypocrisy as the root of all (or most) political evils.
The word ‘hypocrisy’ is Greek in origin, coming from hypokrisis, meaning roughly “play-acting.” From its origins, it was linked to the institutions of both theatre and politics. The Athenian statesman and orator Demosthenes once chided a rival who had begun his career on the stage as a hypokrites, suggesting that his skill in playing fictional characters made him untrustworthy in public office. Since then, the term evolved to be more commonplace in political and intellectual debates—perhaps due in part to its origins there, perhaps because of the prevalence of hypocrisy in those fields. Whatever the cause, twenty-four hundred years later, the charge is alive and well. From Greece to Rome and the powers of Europe to the history of the Catholic Church and too much of today’s world politics, it is fair to say that the shoe fits.
America today is no exception. The question at hand is not whether hypocrisy is at work in our culture. The question is the measure of its impact. To hear it presented by pundits and politically outspoken citizens, one might think that professing a belief in principle only to contradict it in practice is the fatal flaw of American politics today—if not that of political life in any age. This, however, is a dubious characterization of history. While hypocrisy may play a notable role in individuals’ views and perhaps even in the way that they live their lives, it is ultimately too weak a force to motivate and guide whole civilizations. Philosopher Leonard Peikoff, in his lecture, “The Role of Philosophy and Psychology in History,” notes,
“There are exceptions to the dominant philosophy in any age…[but] such exceptions… lead nowhere historically unless they enter the realm of philosophy… A psychology can become motivating historically only when it reflects the dominant philosophy. Otherwise, it is merely an oddity without further effect… Philosophy creates the basic psychology of an age and then urges people to act on it. It sanctions or endorses the psychology that it created and it disarms any opposition. It makes opposition timorous, hesitant, frightened, and ultimately helpless. It makes the psychology that it has created into a virtue and opposition to it an evil or a vice… What philosophy does is actually endorse the allegedly guilty, hidden motives that it creates. Those motives are not hidden, counter to what some superficial observers may think. The motives that move an age are not hidden. They scream out at you, and what philosophy does is endorse those motives. In that sense, people do not disguise their actions. Not in essence. They have integrity, speaking on a historical scale. They preach and act together. I do not believe that hypocrisy is a factor in history; not if you’re speaking on a world scale… Motives on a historical scale are open, stated, avowed. They are not covered up.”
In that lecture, Dr. Peikoff lists several historical instances that are often cited as instances of hypocrisy—Nazism, modern art, etc.—and dispels them. Very current examples, however, are readily available to us today. The self-proclaimed most open administration in history, the Obama administration, engages in an almost daily pattern of obfuscation. The White House press office today is much less like the press offices of past administrations and more like a legal defense team. Its statements on the administration’s policy initiatives are frequently absurd and highly improbable, each delivered with an implicit challenge that the onus of proof to the contrary is on the press and the American people.
Political sites and blogs across the internet are awash with memes and advertisements claiming hypocrisy by this or that candidate in election years. Frequent targets on the left include Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s personal wealth and profligate spending set against their cries for wealth redistribution and CEO compensation packages or Joe Biden’s campaigning against the Patriot Act despite having contributed portions of its language. On the right, Mitt Romney’s ObamaCare/RomneyCare handicap was a prime target for criticism, as was Paul Ryan’s mixed record on TARP and bailouts. Speaker John Boehner is quoted in one meme as having both opposed and supported presidential bypasses of Congress in two different speeches on the same day. Another shows Fox News pundit Sean Hannity supporting NSA surveillance under President Bush while opposing it under Obama.
Consider each of these in detail, however. It is not hypocrisy that underlies the practice of state officials enjoying lavish lifestyles while demanding ever-greater sacrifice from the general population. As Peikoff notes in his lecture, sacrifices require someone to collect on them, and under the socialist systems that are the natural extent of leftist ideals there will always exist a political class ready to enrich themselves through the seizure of others’ property. As horrendous an ideal as it may be, these politicians understand implicitly that such a system entrenches them as an elite class endowed with the discretion to collect sacrifices and allocate wealth as they see fit. Hypocrisy would require having proclaimed oneself to be equal to the people only to then establish a separate set of standards. Campaign trail affectations aside, socialism’s looters-from-above see themselves from the start as more capable and qualified to exercise power over others, and they consistently portray themselves as uniquely deserving of control.
The same could be said of the Obama administration’s obfuscations and conduct toward the press. An administration that has no regard for individual citizens’ privacy and proves it daily through mass surveillance programs is fundamentally denying the concept of government as a servant of the people and embracing the feudal conception of government as the people’s master, entitled to power in exchange for its protective services. From national security to economic policy and regulation, the Obama administration consistently embraces the notion of government as an intrinsic good entitled to abrogate the individual rights of the people in pursuit of its greater aims. Given this framework and the traditional role of the press as advocates of the people devoted to representing their interests by holding government accountable, it would be entirely out of character for the Obama administration to be open to the press. To do so would contradict their fundamental philosophy by respecting the right of the people to hold officials accountable. The claim that this is the “most transparent administration ever” may be an outright lie, but it is a throwaway lie meant to appease those who want to believe it. Again, when one considers the fundamental philosophy of such statists, one realizes that there is no hypocrisy at work here. Dishonesty, betrayal, and dereliction of responsibilities: yes. Hypocrisy: no.
Hypocrisy does, however, pervade the other examples and go well beyond them—particularly on the level of partisan disputes. “Power for me, but not for thee” has been a near incessant refrain on both sides of the aisle on healthcare and national security. Republicans at the Heritage Foundation and in Congress loved the underlying framework behind ObamaCare in the 1990s before Hillary Clinton and the Democrats succeeded in co-opting it for themselves. Mitt Romney may have been the one governor to succeed in implementing it at a state level, but in spirit he was far from alone in his party. Paul Ryan has been as inconsistent as many of his fellow Congressmen on the subject of government bailouts and interventions in the economy. Joe Biden and Sean Hannity are, together, a perfect example of many Americans’ tendency to support overreaching government monitoring programs when their preferred party is in control and to oppose them when that party is out again. And anyone who expects consistency or integrity from John Boehner has not been paying attention for the last six years.
Nonetheless, it is not hypocrisy that makes these policies or their proponents wrong. The cardinal sin of politicians like Clinton lies not in enjoying considerable wealth from book deals and speaking engagements; it is in advocating the immoral use of government force to seize and redistribute the wealth of the individuals who own and produced it. Mitt Romney’s greatest wrong was not his quibbling attempts to reframe his Massachusetts program as being in any way different from ObamaCare or in opposing ObamaCare on the campaign trail; it was in having instituted his state-level program in the first place and the manifest injustices that result from all such social welfare programs. Paul Ryan’s failing was not in campaigning against bailouts after having endorsed TARP; it was in endorsing TARP in the first place, using the tax dollars of the American people in a doomed, irrational, and immoral plan to soften the blow to corporations at the expense of the general public. And the crime of those who waver in their support for invasive government monitoring programs is not in deciding to oppose them when their party is out of power but rather in failing to maintain the integrity of that opposition when power and choice fall to them.
The great transgression of these individuals is in failing to uphold the only proper purpose of government in society: the protection of individual rights. Unable or unwilling to conceptually integrate moral and political principles into a rational and consistent ideology, they inherit the ideas of their parents, their professors, and their predecessors, applying them erratically and inconsistently from crisis to crisis. Shunning moral and epistemological principles as too binding, too rigid, they become pragmatists, drifting from issue to issue, election to election, grasping at straws and range-of-the-moment solutions without a coherent program or guiding system. Once they have shunned basic principles, the litany of ways in which their inconsistencies manifest are mere costs and consequences. Great as these hypocrisies may be, they are not fundamental. They are one of the many manifestations of irrational, bad, or even outright evil philosophical ideas.
To those still hesitant to accept this historical diminution of hypocrisy, who still see it as the great social ill to be defeated, I pose a question: how would you prefer that those whom you see as hypocritical resolve their hypocrisies? Does it matter, so long as they cease to straddle the fence and land solidly on one side or the other? Would you be satisfied if Hillary Clinton gave all of her wealth to charity but still advocated for the redistribution of yours? Would you find comfort in the Obama administration saying outright and explicitly, ‘We do not have to tell the public anything about our inner workings’? Would you have felt better voting for Mitt Romney if he had made a full-throated defense of RomneyCare and ObamaCare alike, acknowledging their equivalence and defending their merits? Would you rather Paul Ryan be in all cases a supporter of government intervention into the economy? Would you rather John Boehner categorically endorse presidential end-runs around Congress? And how would you feel if a politician or pundit of any party stated plainly that NSA overreaches should be allowed when his party was in power but repealed when his opponent’s party is in power?
I venture to guess that you would find none of these satisfying, despite how cleanly they would resolve the looming specter of hypocrisy. That is because the underlying injustice of these positions would not be resolved but stated plainly and embraced. Surely any advocate of capitalism would prefer that each of these contradictory positions be resolved in favor of individual rights: Clinton rejecting redistribution, Ryan opposing bailouts, Romney having never defended government healthcare of any kind, etc. Therein lies the essence of the subject, though: to those of moral conviction on these issues, it will matter in which way hypocrisy is resolved and not simply that it is resolved.
Thus far, I have presented two arguments for why hypocrisy is not the great evil of our time or any other. With the aid of Dr. Peikoff’s words, I presented the idea that hypocrisy is not powerful enough to motivate the trajectory of whole societies. I have now also made the case that a world without hypocrisy could just as easily be uniformly evil and unjust as it could be uniformly good. I maintain that hypocrisy is a fundamentally self-limiting quality, the nature of which diminishes the scope and scale of its effects. As with most common cultural misconceptions, however, though the root of the problem is missed by popular interpretations, it is not entirely drawn from the ether. Like signals through the cultural static, there is something fundamental that those who level the hypocrisy charge are sensing but not interpreting, and it is all the more dangerous than hypocrisy has ever been.
What those who fear hypocrisy are detecting, the cold chill in their spines that they cannot name, is the contradictory philosophy that dominates Western culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Unlike hypocrisy, what these observers are detecting is of immense historical importance and far more dangerous. It is the act of holding consistently to inconsistent and even openly contradictory philosophical ideas. Note the difference: in the case of hypocrisy, one party is professing a belief in an idea while contradicting it in their actions; the alternate case, however, consists of holding consistently to a philosophy or ideology that abides or even deeply integrates contradictory ideas into its guiding premises and embraces those contradictions explicitly. A politician who supports bailouts while paying lip-service to capitalism is, no matter the greater stature he may hold, just one out of many. The one who openly and explicitly advocates irrational, statist ideas in a consistent fashion is something to be feared and detested. The hypocritical politician at least feels the need to appear supportive of individual rights and capitalism, and he may truly support them in some cases. The avowed statist is a threat of a different order: an evil without shame.
It is easy to see why hypocrisy is so often charged as the culprit in our country’s political failures and our elected officials’ misdeeds. It is not only pervasive but also accessible to the average news consumer, and it doesn’t require them to read more deeply into the philosophical ideas that drive our slow march toward statism. It is natural that in a time of crisis people reach for causes, and those most immediately detected will be grasped for out of desperation. Nonetheless, we must be diligent and careful not to be satisfied with easy answers but look deeper into the problems of our culture and prevailing beliefs to find the source of our political crisis. If we do not, it may be our fate that as the battle for our culture escalates, we find ourselves wielding psychological bows and arrows against the intellectual tank brigade of a fully explicit, statist-collectivist philosophy, and by our defaults our opponents inherit a victory that they could not earn.